Dallas Texas and the History of American Coin Collecting
I am headed to Dallas later this week to attend the upcoming ANA National Money show. Going to Dallas is always a little bittersweet for me. I lived in The Big D for a significant portion on my adult life (a little over twenty years, in fact, with a few diversions), and it’s where I met my late wife and essentially learned to be a coin dealer.
Dallas doesn’t have the long numismatic history that New York, Boston and Philadelphia have but despite the fact that it is a comparatively new city, I’d venture to say that it is the epicenter of the modern coin market. The two most important coin dealers of all-time were located in Dallas and at least three to five of the greatest collections of American coins ever formed were created in Dallas as well. A little history follows…
B. Max Mehl, located in Dallas’ sister town of Ft. Worth was unquestionably the most important coin dealer in America during the first half of the 20th century. What is so remarkable about Mehl was that he was an immigrant from Lithuania who despite no formal numismatic training (and, in all probability, a lack of all but the most basic English skills for the first part of his career) managed to build a dynamic coin business thousands of miles away from the traditional Eastern hub of the business.
Mehl built his business around clever promotions, self-promotion and using direct mail and advertising at a time when no other coin dealers were doing this, let alone doing this successfully. It is said that his advertising budget in the 1930′s and 1940′s approached $1 million per year and that at one time a significant portion of the daily mail that arrived in the city of Ft. Worth was addressed to Mehl.
Mehl was not a sophisticated numismatist but he was a wonderful popularizer of the coin hobby and I doubt if anyone who began collecting coins in the era between WW1 and WW2 didn’t own at least a few of his catalogs and/or do business with him from time to time. If I’m not mistaken, his old building is still located in downtown Ft. Worth.
Heritage Rare Coins, located in Dallas, is to the 21st century coin market as Mehl was to the market in the first half of the 20th century. The internet has surely been one of the major factors in the changing of numismatics in the last decade and no one has capitalized on the new web-based technologies more than Heritage.
At this point, the rare coin market is as close to a monopoly as it has ever been and I attribute this to Heritage making many very smart decisions in the last fifteen years and their competition conveniently making many dumb decisions. Heritage now completely dominates the American numismatic auction business and they have essentially eliminated their competition save for Stack’s Bowers. It is hard to remember that as recently as a decade ago there were at least five thriving competitors in the coin auction business.
The brilliance of Heritage’s marketing strategy was to realize before anyone else the impact that the internet would have on the coin market and how being transparent would create a more comfortable bidding and buying environment for collectors. So many of the things that we as a hobby take for granted now (safe online bidding, a database of coin prices and populations, high quality digital images, etc) were either pioneered or perfected by Heritage.
As I mentioned above, many of the greatest coin collections ever assembled have been formed in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area.
The first great local coin collection in the Metroplex was formed by Amon Carter Sr and his son Amon Carter Jr. The bulk of this collection was sold at public auction by Stack’s in January 1984. I didn’t attend this sale but the story behind it, as I recall, was that the weather in New York was awful and that it was not as well-attended with out-of-town buyers as it should have been due to this. The Carter sale was one of the really great auctions of the era even though it is not as well-remembered as Norweb, Garrett, etc.
The best-remembered coin from this sale was the finest known 1794 silver dollar which is now believed to be the first example struck. But there were many great gold coins in the sale including very high quality Liberty Head double eagles (Proofs and business strikes) that would generate considerable interest today if offered for sale.
The next great Dallas collection is a name better-known to gold coin collectors: Harry W. Bass. The Bass collection, which was mostly sold in a series of four auctions conducted by Bowers and Merena between 1999 and 2001, contained the most comprehensive date and variety set of Liberty Head gold coins ever assembled.
Bass became a serious collector of U.S. gold in the early-to-mid 1960′s. This was an era in which gold coins were plentiful, inexpensive and under-researched and through hard work and good connections with dealers (primarily Mike Brownlee, Stanley Kessleman, John Rowe and Julian Leidman) Bass put together a really remarkable collection.
I attended the Bass II, Bass III and Bass IV sales in New York in 1999 and 2000 and, even then, I think I was sufficiently aware of their significance. In some ways, these sales were the defining moment of the end of the old-school coin market; the point in time just before the internet took , when dealers still attended sales in person and when a gigantic event like Bass II (over 2,000 lots and with thousands and thousands of interesting individual and grouped coins) could be “carved up” by groups of dealers and dominated by six to eight buyers.
There are two currently active collections in Dallas/Ft. Worth that deserve mention and they are clearly among the five greatest American sets ever formed. The first is the Pogue family. This set is not all that well-known outside of the “inner circle” of dealers and collectors but it is incredible. The scope of the collection is Gem quality U.S. coins struck from the 1790′s until around 1900 with an emphasis on Gem early silver and gold.
I have never had the good fortune to view this collection in its entirety but I have had the chance to view it in dribs and drabs. The Pogues got really serious about coins during the Eliasberg sale in October 1982 and they bought heavily out of what was arguably the greatest collection of U.S. gold ever formed. They continued to buy aggressively in the 1980′s and 1990′s with the guidance of David Akers, Larry Hanks and others. I have had to compete against the Pogues at a number of auctions and when they want a really great coin, needless to say that are formidable competitors. From what I know about this collection, it is the single greatest set of its type ever assembled and it is certainly the one set that I would pay to be able to view it.
The other great collection in located in Ft. Worth and it belongs to Bob Simpson, the current owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team and the former CEO of XTO Energy. Simpson is much newer to the market than the Pogues but he has assembled an amazing, comprehensive collection in less than a decade. To his credit, he has done this in a highly competitive environment in which information is more accessible than ever, few coins sell under the radar and the average “Simpson-esque” coin is far more expensive than in past decades.
Before I end this blog, it wouldn’t be right not to mention a few more of the great dealers and collectors from the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. Some of the dealers who I regard as major players in the market (past or present) include John Rowe, Mike Brownlee, Mike Follett and R.E. Wallace. You couldn’t list four more different guys but each, in his own way, had an impact on the coin market that extended far beyond Dallas or Ft. Worth.
And no blog about Dallas/Ft. Worth numismatics could be complete without mentioning William Phillpot (a great paper money collector), R.E. Schermerhorn (one-time owner of an 1849-C Open Wreath gold dollar), John Murrell (owner of the greatest unknown collection of U.S. gold coins ever assembled) and others.
Se you at the show at Tables 217-219!